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The Great Race

review by Anthony D.

 

 

Rating: PG

Running Time: 133 minutes

Starring: Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, Peter Falk, Keenan Wynn

Screenplay by: Arthur Ross
Based on a story by: Arthur Ross and Blake Edwards

Directed by: Blake Edwards

 

Studio: Warner Bros.

Retail Price: $19.98

Features: Behind the Scenes with Blake Edwards Documenary, Cast and Crew, Theatrical Trailer

Specs: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, English Dolby Digital 5.1, French Mono, English Subtitles, French Subtitles, Spanish Subtitles, Portuguese Subtitles, Japanese Subtitles, Korean Subtitles, Thai Subtitles, English Closed Captions, Scene Selection (44 Scenes)

Released: June 4th, 2002

 

 

Two hours and forty minutes is a butt-boggling length for a film; but when that film features the directoral hand of Blake Edwards, the time flies quite quickly. As well it should, for a film entitled "The Great Race." The film falls into that early 1960's sub-genre of uber-comedies; super-long, super big, super-starred and superbly produced and directed. "The Great Race" would be minor Edwards IF it had been cast any differently and not contained one of Blake's most common themes: the battle of the sexes. In fact, today, "The Great Race's" sexual/gender-defined issues seem to be more important than the title's race.

It does take some time to get to the race itself, since Edwards has quite a few character-defining set pieces to attend to. The film bears a dedication to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, two comic geniuses whose best films were mostly of the silent, slapstick sort. With a title card, pre-credits, saluting those guys, the viewer instantly knows that "The Great Race" is never gonna concentrate on the race itself, but the fine messes the characters can get themselves into. So, our hero, "The Great Leslie" (twinkle-eyed Tony Curtis) is introduced doing what he does best: Houdini-inspired feats of derring do. Our villain, "Professor Fate" (a very limber-limbed Jack Lemmon), is then shown doing what he does best: attempting to foil any feats that Leslie may try to do. Clad in shimmering whites, Leslie escapes from a straight-jacket which in turn is suspended from a hot air balloon, which Professor Fate (like all great comic villains) will try to shoot down before Leslie can succeed. Mayhem ensues, but, as the old motto goes, Fate could easily utter, "Curses! Foiled again!" (Which fortunately for the sake of cliche, he never does).

So the scene is set for the central "good vs evil" scenario, and it's time to set the pace for the race itself. Leslie challenges the best automobile company going to build him the finest car their technology can muster, since this is 1910 (or somewhere therabouts), you know that the car is going to be sleek, shining and, like Leslie's perfect teeth: WHITE. Leslie's plans for the car: a race unlike any other the country has ever seen, a drive from turn-of-the-century New York City to fin-de-siecle Paris! Anyone with a brain can see that this will be a "westward, ho!" race. Fate, of course, builds his own vehicle, with the help of his trusy cohort, Max (Peter Falk, who in my humble opinion, has never looked more handsome, nor more masculine than he does here), which has features which he will use to enable Leslie's doom. "Push the button, Max" becomes a comic watchcry throughout the the film, as each time the button is pushed, chaos, or s**t happens.

Now, all we need to complete the period homage is a damsel in distress. Maggie DuBois could have been that damsel, but, Maggie is a modern woman; a cigar-smoking, suffragette leading, emancipated woman seeking the same rights and treatment as men. And with Natalie Wood portraying her, as well as Blake Edwards emphasis on gender confusion, Maggie Dubois quite easily becomes the film's hero. Natalie has never been as stunningly beautiful on screen as she is here in front of Blake's camera. Nor would her light comedic skills ever be put to better use. This Maggie is not a stereotypical female by any means: she speaks Russian, French and Arabic fluently; she edited her college newspaper, she's a brilliant fencer, a fine equestrian and a woman who will always come out on top. Maggie may get what she wants through feminine wiles, a silk-stockinged leg exposed at the right moment, a dashing duel against The Great Leslie or an ever-present set of handcuffs; but it is becuase she doesn't abuse her womanhood to get what she wants, that she is a truly remarkable creation.

So the race begins with three major competitors: Fate in his hand-made destruction-mobile, Leslie in his personalized vehicle and Maggie, in a roadster meant for city streets, not the open road. To further emphasize the characters over the event, the script quickly bypasses the open road, allowing only for three major stops - and in the hands of Blake Edwards and his great cast, three very big set-pieces.

Setpiece Number One finds our competitors as guests of honor in a saloon in a western town, where provisions await them IF they attend the planned celebration. While Fate and Max conjure up ways to get the gasolene and be on their way, Leslie and Maggie are treated to a celebratory song from the Texas songbird, Lily Olay. The divine Miss Dorothy Provine proves to be a singing canary indeed, with her feathered boa and her figure-hugging yellow gown, she warbles a delightful cautionary ditty: "He Shoudn't-a, Hadn't-a, Oughtn't-a Swang on Me." Provine's energy, combined with Johnny Mercer's witty and risque lyrics, stop the show - in a good way - in the hands of anyone else, this sequence could've brought the race to a dead halt, but here, it leads into the brawniest barroom brawl ever put onto screen. Larry Storch (television's "F-Troop") leads the fray as Lily's jealously possessive fiance, a fray with the watchcry of "Give me some fighting room!" It's a brilliantly choreographed fight which literally brings down the house. Wow! two showtoppers (one musical) in the space of three chapters! You would think it doesn't get much better than this, but you'd be wrong.

Setpiece Number Two involves verbal and visual repartee, but little action. The racers have reached the Bering Straits, where they are stranded car by car by an intense blizzard. The double-parked vehicles give rise to the competitor's survival skills, sleeping four in a blanker, eating canned beans, verbally sparring all the while waiting for the storm to pass, the polar bear to leave and most importantly, the iceberg to melt. This lengthy segment works mostly because of the incredible design of the ice-flow and the Oscar-winning Sound Design.

Finally, the race reaches Western Europe, Potzdorf, to be precise: a storybook kingdom frequently seen in film. Here, Potzdorf looks remarkably like "The Sound of Music's" Salzburg, Austria. Potzdorf has a few problems though; a coronation is about to take place and there is a plot afoot to subsititute someone else for the country's besotted, very fey ruler, Prince Hapnik. Hapnik is played by Jack Lemmon in a brilliantly physical incarnation as well as a laugh unrivalled until Nicole Kidman's in "Eyes Wide Shut." This entire "Pisoner of Zenda" twist may be a bit too long, a lengthy waltz sequence could have been edited down, though this is the only portion of the film that feels rushed, as if major chunks had been edited out before the film's initial release. But Potzdorf holds Blake Edwards' triumphant Setpiece Number Three, one that is most certainly worth the wait and the script incosistencies: Chapter 39, "Pies Everywhere." As the chapter title implies, this is a classic pie-throwing scene taken to new heights of hilarity by a very game cast. In a brilliant visual joke, our hero, still dressing in white, can cross the pie-drenched set, without missing a beat, manage to NOT be hit by one of the thousands of pies being flung through the air.

All that is left is for the race to be won - oh, and a brief musical interlude, the breathtaking waltz composed by Johnny Mercer and Henry Mancini: "The Sweetheart Tree." It's worth mentioning since it contains some of Mercer's best lyric writing, bears a strong cinematic resemblence to Mercer and Mancini's Oscar winner "Moon River" as well as a visual salute to early filmmaking in that we get to "follow the bouncing ball" to sing along with Natalie. Once the competitors reach Paris, however, the ending tosses in a few more sight gags as well as an ending which could mean that there's more to come.

Taken as a comedy, "The Great Race" is indeed far to long and often belabored for its own good. As a part of the Blake Edwards canon of films, however, it is a film that should not be missed. All the ingredients are there for a great comedy: the cast is remarkable and peppered with familiar faces such as Vivian Vance, Arthur O'Connell and Ross Martin. There are two great sword-fighting sequences, both pairing Tony Curtis with two varied opponents; he takes on Natalie Wood early in the film (and by all means check out time marker 33:00 in Chapter 12, and explain to me how the champagne bottle got past the rigid censorship of 1965) then later, bare-chested against Ross Martin in a scene that would make Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone proud. But, "The Great Race" never provides gales of laughter. It is a well-crafted film on every level, but is more amiable and smile-garnering than guffaw-inducing. It should come as no surprise that "The Great Race" has developed quite a cult following, and is an easily recognizable popular title. Warner has delevered a DVD with a director's supervised digital transfer as well as a newly remixed soundtrack which are well worth looking into.

 

Put simply, "The Great Race" looks great. I can't quite recall when I've seen a film from this period (mid-1960's) that has transferred this well to DVD. Detail is quite good, especially on the multitude of costumes worn by Maggie DuBois. From flaming red to black net and all the way to a white toga-like garment (which looks more fitting for "Spartacus") worn off-the shoulder for her "Sweetheart Tree," to the final frilly victory concoction, these numerous outfits are both beautiful as well as being character-defining. Rich blacks abound in nearly every scene featuring Max and Professor Fate. Fleshtones are hardly pale nor peachy, but fairly accurate given the age of the film. The only trouble spots in the anamorphically encoded transfer are the process shots used at the beginning of the feature: they are skillfully blended, never drawing attention, but are quite soft. Edward's Panavision framing has been meticulously restored to all of its original aspect ratio - and that's a very wide canvas!

 

Even with very little .LFE activity, "The Great Race's" restored and remastered soundtrack will please the most discriminating ear. There are several directional effects, but, like "Victor/Victoria," this is primarily a front oriented soundtrack. Henry Mancini's delightful musical score benefits the most from the use of the rear speakers. This is definitely one of the best Mancini scores going, as it weaves Sousa-esque marches with pieces of Americana, not to mention the piano-oriented winks at film conventions of the early sound age. If anything, hearing the remastered soundtrack made me finally realize that Natalie Wood was dubbed during "The Sweetheart Tree." Dialogue is clear and concise, and Warner has offered up a veritable cornucopia of subtitles.

 

On the Bonus Material side, however, the pickings are slim. (This is more than likely due to the disc space taken up by the length of the feature itself). An improperly framed Theatrical Trailer (1.85:1), the sub-standard Cast/Filmmakers Film Highlights (c'mon, Warner; if you're going to include these text documents, at least give us ALL of the actor's films) and a rare promotional short, in fading black and white, from 1965, Behind the Scenes with Blake Edwards' The Great Race, which features a good deal of interesting footage, but doesn't quite live up to its title. If Chapter Encoding is considered a Bonus, then Warner once again has done a great job at providing clever titles for the film's Forty Four (44) chapters.

 

"The Great Race" is definitely a curio. The reteaming of "Some Like it Hot's" two leads, once again involved in slapstick and gender issues, the divine beauty of Natalie Wood and the sure-handed direction of Blake Edwards are the primary reasons for owning "The Great Race." Warner has delivered a boffo print of the film, and with that $19.98 price tag, it would be hard to bypass this DVD. If you're one of the few who has never seen this film, I honestly have to urge you to rent it first; and as much as I love this film, that's a difficult statement for me to make. For those of us who think that since the death of Billy Wilder that Blake Edwards is the greatest living director, then it's a sure thing that "The Great Place" will hold a treasured spot in our DVD libraries.